An Old, Broke Montana Rancher Remembers Christmas Morning 60 Years Ago

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Snowy farm

I came from the typical ranch family in Montana. Most of the families that had small ranches back in those days were poor, and we were no different. My mom and dad worked from sunrise until sunset seven days a week, except for the shorter days of winter.  In the winter my parents went to work long before sunrise. My dad never got a day off; operating a dairy wouldn't permit it. Like most boys born in the 1950s, especially those born on a ranch, I had chores to do. I remember them well: gathering, washing, candling eggs, feeding ground barley to the small critters. My dad fed the big ones, he said, in case they got ornery. 

I had to make sure the critters were fed before I could catch the school bus in the morning, and do the whole dance again after getting off the school bus.

My Mom and Dad sold cream and eggs to the local creamery, and that butter and egg money were the meager revenue we lived on. They sold a few butcher hogs to the local butcher here and there, and managed to fatten a dozen steers a year, too, but it never amounted to much by way of profit. They put up hay for the cattle and had some acreage in barley for the cows, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. Most ranch critters love to eat barley. They milked the cows twice a day and took cream and eggs into town six days a week.

It was a hardscrabble existence, and though I may not have realized it at the time, it was not easy for them to take care of and feed their family, but I never went to bed hungry.  

My mom made homemade bread almost every day. Incredibly, she even ground her own wheat. Imagine the average Bozemanite having to do that - if they did they'd call it "artisanal."

In addition to bread, she made cinnamon rolls and donuts. We had pork chops, fresh eggs, milk, homemade ice cream, all from our dusty little spread.

I had about a baker's dozen of older cousins from which to inherit hand-me-downs, so I had clothes on my back, though sometimes tattered and stretched where one of those who preceded me into puberty had hit an unexpected growth spurt. It always bothered me to wear other people's clothing, and I often thought that I wouldn't have kids if I could not afford stiff new denim for them. Of course, it never occurred to me that if my parents thought that way I might not be here. So I begrudgingly wore jeans with holes in them, sometimes roughly patched with what cloth we had at hand, and sometimes with knobby knees jutting out.

Have you witnessed kids come pouring out of a High School at the closing bell these days? I commented to my son, a sophomore, that there must be some very poor kids to have so many conspicuously unpatched jeans. He laughed at me, a not uncommon occurrence, explaining that the ones with the holes in the knees were the rich kids. 

Sure enough, they seemed to be getting into the fanciest trucks in the parking lot. The more things change, well, the more they change.

Snow on the roof

So, being poor and all, I had no clue what my mom and dad had planned for the Christmas of my 10th year, in that far off year of 1961. I was born in October, so I had recently turned a decade old, the age when avarice rules the young mind, and visions of big presents wrapped with bows danced through my greedy little skull. But I didn't expect Santa to bring me anything - hell no, that big faker didn't exist, as I had already proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.

It had snowed Christmas Eve, and being the inquisitive type, I went out onto the porch, still in my salmon-pink one-piece pajamas, the kind that unbuttoned in back in case you had business to be done. From there I could shimmy up a post and have a pretty good gander at the low, ranch-style roof of the house. And there was not one reindeer hoofprint to mar the perfect white of the snow.

I have a sister four years older than me. She would have been a sophomore. I also have a younger brother, six years younger than me, and at the tender age of four, he still believed in Santa. I took my brother out the door, onto the porch as well, propping him up on my shoulders so that he could see for himself: notice no marks where a sleigh that side would have set down. No hoof prints, either, nor boot prints where a man Santa's side had disembarked. I convinced him then; if there were no tracks, then there was no Santa. "But there are presents," he pointed out. Well, who do you think put those under the tree, I prodded him. 

"They sure as hell didn't come from no 'Jolly Old Elf,'" I said. I was old enough to know that Mom and Dad had sacrificed for the day, so I told him to thank them for the presents. My parents were shocked when he thanked them for Santa's gifts, and Dad looked at me with a deeply disapproving and maybe even withering look.  

I felt bad, and I suppose with the benefit of 60 or so years of wisdom I realize I may have been showing off what a good detective I was, too. I suppose my little brother didn't have to have his illusions destroyed just yet. Who was I, after all? And so my advice, offered freely to anyone who will listen, is that if you don't believe in Santa, and you know someone who does, you may as well keep your trap shut and let them have their fun.

.22 rifle

On Christmas morning, 1961, there was a large present under the tree with my name on it. It was long and nearly flat, and though I guessed at what it might be, I decided it couldn't be.  

Once when we were talking about guns, Dad had hinted that I probably would not get my first real rifle until I was 12 or 13, so I thought "no, it must be something else." A new union suit, perhaps. 

And yet: when I opened it up, there it was. I could not believe it: a brand spanking new Winchester model 55. At ten, for the first time, I felt like a man. My dad trusted me, and now I had my own gun to prove it.

It was a single shot - "for safety," my dad said. But also, if you only had one shot, you had to make it count. A single shot will make you a better shot.

What a surprise it was, that long distant Christmas. I wish I could turn back the hands of the clock and re-live that day.

However, the best I can come up with is to try to paint a picture for you of what the day looked like, and smelled like, and sounded like, so that you can join me there, in the past.  

The tree was fresh-cut from the forest, the product of a family outing taken about two weeks earlier. Consequently, the ranch house had the smell of fresh pine and a hint of pine smoke, as the flue in the old fireplace leaked a little. The tree was decorated with the huge light bulbs typical of 1960s, comprising all of the colors of the rainbow. They even blinked. Tinsel and fake icicles hung from the branches. It was enough to drive a little boy into paroxysms of cheer.

From the kitchen wafted the smells of dinner, with all the trimmings: fresh smoked ham and a big roasted turkey. Both the turkey and the ham were farm-raised and farm-smoked, too. Jars of Pickles, sweet and dill in case you preferred one or the other, sat on the table. They had been canned by the loving hands of my aunts, mother, and sister. Mashed potatoes, home-grown and smothered in ranch made butter, with gravy overflowing from the boat. Even the mint jelly was homemade. The only things purchased for the whole of the feast were the rings of pineapple and the cloves that decorated the slices of ham. 

For dessert, the table was set with fudge made with fresh cream from our dairy cows. my sister's favorite. There was also strawberry rhubarb pie, both plucked from the garden, my dad's favorite. My favorite, made-from-scratch chocolate cake, was well-complimented by rich vanilla Ice cream, the favorite of my poor little brother. I noticed he managed to enjoy it despite having been disabused of his notions about Santa Claus.

I miss the simpler times. Though we were poor, my mom set a kingly table. Though we were poor, somehow they saved enough over the year to put presents under the tree - presents so special that I remember them still, near 60 years later.  

As a little boy, those presents danced through my head, and I went to bed already planning on what I would with them tomorrow and the next day, and the next. As an old man, I still dream of those same presents, tinged now with the bittersweetness of having grown up, but never forgotten them. Every year, I hope that I can deliver a Christmas even half as memorable and full of love as the ones my Mom and Dad provided me.

On this Christmas in the year of our Lord 2020, me and mine wish you and yours a truly Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Christmas fireplace behind door

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

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Dawn Wetherby … (not verified) , Mon, 12/21/2020 - 11:32
Fabulous and so well written. I could have written it but my wish would’ve been for a pocket knife which I actually got for my 10th bday in 1959
Valerie Lawe (not verified) , Thu, 12/24/2020 - 09:23
I never lived in MT, my dad had 20 acres outside Whitefish that he dreamed about and eventually sold. We spent every summer near there in the 60's and 70's. I still live in the country in Humboldt County, CA. Thanks for this essay, beautiful!
Janice (not verified) , Thu, 12/02/2021 - 10:09
Cori L'Bere (not verified) , Sat, 12/11/2021 - 14:22
Thank You .. good to hear that most of us lived the same in Montana, It has been a surprise to me that people are in awe of how we lived.. in the 40's and 50's... and long before that much the same of hard work and long days with little of nothing.

Dave (not verified) , Sat, 12/11/2021 - 16:18
Nice story our Christmas was about the same as Your's!
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